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How you like them apples? The pros and cons of organic food

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Red apples

We spend nearly €100m a year on organic food, but is it worth it?

After a couple of years of falling sales, the horsemeat scandal has prompted a 6pc rise in purchases of organic food this year as shoppers seek out foodstuffs they can trust.

Organic food definitely appeals to many consumers disgusted by revelations of what really goes into processed food.

Bord Bia research shows that a belief that organic food is healthier is its number one attraction, followed by its freedom from chemicals and pesticides and its 'natural' appeal.

A majority also believe that it tastes better and is fresher, although many also rate it as expensive, which presumably explains its falling sales, down from €106m in 2011 to €99m last year .

But with the squeeze on household incomes, Smart Consumer took a look at the prices of organic produce and asked the experts if it delivers on its healthy promise.

We found that organic foodstuffs can be up to twice as dear as the conventional product.

For example, an organic cucumber costs €1.39 compared with just €0.69 for a regular one.

For carrots – one of the most popular organic buys – the price differential is 60pc.

Meanwhile, for organic mince the price premium is 50pc, though retailers tend to sell it in smaller-pack sizes to offset the higher price.

However, surprisingly, organic potatoes actually came out cheaper in our survey, which is linked to the poor yields of regular spuds this year pushing up their prices, whereas organic yields held up.

But given that organic food generally commands a significant price premium, how does it fare in terms of being healthier and tasting better? Until now, the international evidence has been inconclusive on whether it contains more vitamins and antioxidants, but there's been a lack of Irish evidence.

However, Dr Tracey Larkin of Limerick Institute of Technology is currently carrying out a three-year research project comparing organic and conventional fruit and vegetables.

She's found that organic fruit and veg does not score higher for total antioxidants – the nutrients that help repair cell damage and fight cancer and infections.

However, the research is now focusing on individual vitamins and antioxidant levels and the results of this will be revealed in the autumn.

Dr Larkin also carried out blind tests on whether organic food tastes, smells and looks better as this is a key belief of many of its fans.

This study showed that there was no significant differences between the two food types – though some consumers rated conventional apples as being sweeter than organic ones, while regular carrots also scored higher than organic ones for smell and texture.

And surprisingly, when it came to pesticide levels a study carried out in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture found that the majority of organic samples she looked at had trace levels of pesticides.

Dr Larkin said she is also investigating whether organic food might have higher levels of mycotoxins – natural but harmful toxins that can develop in the absence of pesticides.

"Ultimately we will publish a complete organic v conventional picture – bio-finger print – for fruit and vegetables which will inform consumers," she said.

Grace Maher of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) said that the organic sector was in a healthier state than Bord Bia figures indicated as sales in farmers' markets were not included.

"What we have found is that most consumers choose organic food because of what it is free from, ie pesticides and chemicals, rather than its nutrient levels," she said.

"Concern about the global food chain had also caused sales of organic meat and organic burgers to rocket this year, with sales of some producers up 15-20pc," she noted. Further Irish research to investigate the differences between organic and conventional foods would be welcome." she said.

Irish Independent